The Rev. Harry Robinson, rector of St. John’s Shaughnessy Anglican Church, died last week of a heart attack while walking with a friend near his home on Mayne Island. His funeral is at 1:00 pm this afternoon (which will explain why the faculty panel in the CTC course will be a little slimmer than planned).
Harry was one of the best preachers in North America. Most of you will not know him, though his tall (but increasingly frail and bent) figure was, until recently, often present in the Atrium and (especially) the library. Yet the legacy he leaves for Regent is considerable. Most significantly, probably, that mark is in the lives and outlooks of those of us who knew him and heard him preach, and attended the church which grew, under his ministry, to one of the largest Anglican churches in Canada.
When our family began attending there in the early 80’s, with two teen-agers, we were exhausted victims of the “invent-your-own” liturgy style of the (then-much-newer) “contemporary” evangelical church. As a result, every Sunday morning we generally came home vaguely grumpy. But the first time we went as a family to St. John’s, after hearing a typically oblique Robinson sermon, we came home thoughtful and alive, as though our roots had been released into deep, good soil, a soil which nourishes all four of us still.
The soil was the Christian story, which we kept encountering in ways that always surprised us. That stream of Biblical truth (to change the metaphor) was never shallow or tepid, always swift and deep, and it swept lots of people off their feet, including many of the “cradle Anglicans” in the old church he came to. Gradually the old words of the Book of Common Prayer (which Harry loved, and in which he was deeply at home) became the channel for the life-giving river that poured from Harry’s preaching.
But all that gives the wrong impression. Harry was not, in a conventional sense, an eloquent speaker, and never gave the impression of being comfortable in the pulpit. He often seemed as surprised, as swept off his feet by what he was discovering in the lectionary, as those of us who heard him. Annie Dillard’s words about church were never truer than when Harry preached:
Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?…It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. . .
That sense of vulnerability before an overwhelming stream of scary goodness was the impression Harry’s sermons left. To catch an idea of it at Regent, stand in the upstairs halls outside the washroom and look at the sculpture, “Speak” hanging on the wall at the end of the hall. The figure is by David Robinson, whose brilliant and troubling sculptures are very much like his father’s sermons. The preacher in the sculpture (though Dave has never exactly told me that) is clearly his father Harry: crucified in the pulpit, perhaps—or longing for a crash helmet as he is swept along on the torrent of truth.
Or take a thoughtful look at the “water-bearer” sculpture in the library—another sermon by Harry’s sculptor son, which Harry actually preached in one Advent chapel: Dave agreed to move the statue into the chapel and Harry pointed out the ambiguity of the figure bearing the yoke: it’s not exactly Christ—it’s us, not on top of the world, but trying to stand erect on the surface of a sphere just where it curves inexorably from a comfortable platform down into an impossible cliff. It’s only then, on the edge of disaster, that Christ becomes the burden bearer for us, the source of water for the life of the world.
That’s the kind of sermon Harry preached, as he preaches it still, indirectly, in these great sculptures by his son. Crucified by the truth he speaks, vessel for the water of life without which we would inwardly die: that was Harry Robinson’s lasting legacy. Those of us who knew him remember him with great thankfulness.